In a sense, Saison is a play of contradiction: a sophisticated restaurant tucked into what looks like the back alley of a Mission warehouse, a French country-side interior with Led Zepplin and Lynyrd Skynyrd serenading diners in the background, and seemingly simple food which, in actuality, requires an astonishing amount of patience and technique to prepare. And when I say patience, envision a chef carefully balancing tiny flower petals, one by one, onto a bite-sized piece of sashimi with tweezers. And that’s just the amuse-bouche.
For all of the amusing, contradictory aspects of this restaurant, one thing is very clear: Joshua Skenes manages to create a cohesive, refined menu where the subtle, natural flavors of his chosen ingredients stand out despite the complexity involved in creating the dish.
Subtle is the keyword here. If you’re looking for hearty, braised meats drizzled with deep, rich sauces, this is not the restaurant for you. What you’re going to see on the menu is Skene’s proclivity towards subtle garden flavors – leeks, flowers, root vegetables – uncomplicated by sauces, and generally paired with broths or with proteins served in their own natural jus.
The food is described as “being devoid of unnecessary elements” in order to bring the full flavor of the focus ingredient to life. While there is no doubt that leeks served with sweetwater oyster jus and a dollop of caviar certainly places your full attention on the natural sweetness of the leek, there are some elements that I would deem necessary which were simply lacking, salt being one of them.
And, although there is certainly an art to taking a dish down to its most simplistic form and shining a spotlight on a single flavor, an ingredient’s natural flavor or texture can be enhanced when paired with other, potentially disparate ingredients. Plays on sweet and salty, fatty richness with acid, or gooey and crispy, are all ways to bring one particular flavor to life, while providing balance. Unfortunately, I didn’t see this kind of balance on the menu, and what could’ve have been an “homage au jardin” fell flat.
For example, the Little Beets served with Pedro Jimenez vinegar, hibiscus, and bone marrow were quite good. They tasted like beets, which have a very distinct flavor. However, they didn’t vastly differ from the roasted farmer’s market beets I make at home, save a bit more pomp and circumstance in presentation, and unfortunately, the marrow’s nuance was overwhelmed by the beet.
After a meal filled with relatively mild flavors, my taste buds were brought to life by the sudden intensity of the dessert – a chocolate-walnut crumble with salted caramel ice cream. Salty with sweet, crunchy with creamy, yet still simple, this was a well-balanced dessert which ended up being the highlight of our dinner.
Every night at Saison (well, the Friday, Saturday, and Sundays they are open) is a different dining experience because, as Chef Skenes notes, “(the) menu is crafted from scratch. We source all of our ingredients from the surrounding land and our network of small farms, ranches, and fishermen.” And while my experience may not have totally met my expectations, if you’re a fan of expert execution, restrained flavors, and food taken down to the bare essentials, Saison will have just what you’re looking for.
2124 Folsom Street
San Francisco, CA 94110